In an extraordinary discovery, astronomers have detected a possible marker of life on Venus, a planet that has not been a significant part of the search for life because of its extreme temperatures, atmospheric composition, and other factors. Astronomical observations have confirmed the highly mysterious presence of the chemical phosphine in the acidic clouds that blanket Venus. This could mean two things. Either our understanding of how phosphine is produced is incorrect. Or we have to look no further than Venus for alien life.
Venus has long been overshadowed by Mars as a potential abode of life because of its hellish surface temperatures and crushing atmospheric pressures. However, there might be someone living in the clouds of Venus. The researchers have racked their brains trying to understand why this toxic gas, phosphine, is there in such quantities, but they can't think of any geologic or chemical explanation. The mystery raises the astonishing possibility that Venus, the planet that comes closest to Earth as it whizzes around the sun, might have some kind of life flourishing more than 30 miles (50 km) up in its yellow, hazy clouds.
Phosphine is to Venus as methane is to Mars? 20 parts-per-million of phosphine have been detected in the temperate clouds of Venus, and its source is not evident. Greaves et al.: https://t.co/aZhuAXkNdZ pic.twitter.com/a3sFW6qXoS— Nature Astronomy (@NatureAstronomy) September 14, 2020
“A paper about chemistry on Venus was published today in Nature Astronomy. NASA was not involved in the research and cannot comment directly on the findings,” the US space agency said.
The US space agency (NASA) asked scientists recently to sketch the design for a potential flagship mission in the 2030s. Flagships are the most capable - and most expensive - ventures undertaken by NASA. This particular concept proposed an aerobot, or instrumented balloon, to travel through the clouds of Venus.
"The Russians did this with their Vega balloon in 1985," said team-member Prof Sara Seager from MIT. "It was coated with Teflon to protect it from sulphuric acid and floated around for a couple of days, making measurements.” “We could definitely go make some in-situ measurements. We could concentrate the droplets and measure their properties. We could even bring a microscope along and try to look for life itself.”
The tentative detection of phosphine is likely to fuel calls for a return to Venus — a trip that some say is long overdue, given that the last time NASA sent a probe to the planet was in 1989. It’s completely within the realm of possibility to do an atmospheric sample-return mission, sending a spacecraft to swoop through the clouds and gather gas and particles to bring back to Earth. On the more immediate horizon, a smaller mission to study the deep atmosphere of Venus, named DAVINCI+, is one of the four finalists in NASA’s Discovery program competition. The next mission selection is scheduled to take place in 2021.
In the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, there’s really only one big question: Where is everybody? This question has haunted alien hunters ever since the Nobel-winning physicist Enrico Fermi posed it to some colleagues over lunch 70 years ago. There are billions of sun-like stars in our galaxy, and we now know that most of them host planets. But after decades of searching, astronomers haven’t found any that appear to host life. This is the so-called Fermi paradox: Our galaxy seems like it should be teeming with alien civilizations, but we can’t find a single one.